Japan Crown Prince vows to follow father's footstep

In this Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017 photo released by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito poses for a photo at Togu Palace in Tokyo. Naruhito celebrated his 57th birthday on Thursday, Feb. 23. (The Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AP)
In this Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017 photo released by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, center, poses for a photo with Crown Princess Masako, left, and their daughter Princess Aiko at Togu Palace in Tokyo. Naruhito celebrated his 57th birthday on Thursday, Feb. 23. (The Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AP)
In this Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017 photo released by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito poses for a photo at Togu Palace in Tokyo. Naruhito celebrated his 57th birthday on Thursday, Feb. 23. (The Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AP)
In this Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017 photo released by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, center, poses for a photo with Crown Princess Masako, left, and their daughter Princess Aiko at Togu Palace in Tokyo. Naruhito celebrated his 57th birthday on Thursday, Feb. 23. (The Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AP)
In this Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017 photo released by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, center, looks at a map Crown Princess Masako, left, and their daughter Princess Aiko while posing for a photo at Togu Palace in Tokyo. Naruhito celebrated his 57th birthday on Thursday, Feb. 23. (The Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AP)
In this Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017 photo released by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, center, poses for a photo with Crown Princess Masako, left, and their daughter Princess Aiko at Togu Palace in Tokyo. Naruhito celebrated his 57th birthday on Thursday, Feb. 23. (The Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AP)

TOKYO — Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito marked his 57th birthday Thursday with a pledge to follow in his father's footsteps as a symbol of the nation if his father's wish to abdicate is realized.

Naruhito is first in line to Japan's Chrysanthemum throne and would succeed Emperor Akihito, now 83.

Akihito expressed last August his apparent wish to abdicate, citing concerns his age and health may start limiting his ability to fulfil his duties. The government is currently discussing a special law to allow Akihito to step down.

"I would like to continue to pray for, always stand by, and share joys and sorrows with the people," Naruhito said in a birthday message released Thursday.

Akihito would be the first to abdicate since Emperor Kokaku 200 years ago. Media reports have said officials are eying an abdication at the end of 2018, when Akihito turns 85 and his reign is in its 30th year.

A government panel looking into the abdication has avoided some of the more heated issues, such as whether women should be allowed in the current male-only succession amid concerns about a shortage of successors to the throne.

Naruhito said he is open to discussing ways to have the imperial succession fit the modern era.

"The role of the imperial family changes from one era to another, as a new era brings in a fresh breeze," he said.

Akihito has two sons, but only one of his four grandchildren is male.

Some experts say Akihito's possible abdication is a wakeup call to the larger issues of aging and a shortage of successors in Japan's 2,000-year-old monarchy — issues that reflect concerns about the country's aging and declining population.

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Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

Find her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/mari-yamaguchi

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